BERLIN -- The Galaxy Gear is a rumour no longer.
Samsung today officially fired its first salvo in the wearable tech wars, unveiling its smartwatch at the IFA show in Berlin Germany. The product will be released around the world on 25 September at the same time as the new Samsung-- except for customers in the US and Japan, who will need to wait until October.
The Samsung Galaxy Gear is one of those gadgets that you have to have in your hands to like. Before and even after I'd seen it, I was plagued with questions Samsung has yet to answer: Will it be really expensive? How long will the battery really last? Are there enough apps? Is it, in fact, entirely pointless?
But when I actually strapped the Gear on my wrist, I was won over. The Gear is a smartwatch, a wrist-worn touch-screen timepiece that talks to your phone, so you don't have to be forever fetching your phone from purse or pocket. It sits on your wrist and happily controls your music, tracks your exercise, installs your favourite apps -- it even makes phone calls.
Unveiled at technology extravaganza IFA 2013 alongside the Note 3, the Android-powered Gear is intended to lead what is expected to be a new generation of smartwatches and wearable gadgets. (Significantly, though, the Gear will only be compatible with the Note 3 at launch.) Smartwatches are designed to cut through the noise of your phone, with its apps and games and notifications and social networks and alerts and alarms and little red numbers shouting for your attention -- and the Gear manages that with a playful elegance. This isn't about high-spec or high-def or high-anything else; so in this First Take, let's see what it's like to strap one of these things to your wrist.
I was charmed by the combination of simplicity with function: it's incredibly easy to control, yet does enough useful things to have this gadget fan convinced I need it. Weighing in at 73.8g, it's a lot less chunky than I expected -- although you may feel differently if your wrists are daintier than mine -- and will in fact feel practically slimline to anyone who's ever worn a musclebound exercise tracker like a Nike+ or Adidas MiCoach sporty watch.
Powered by an 800MHz processor and 512MB of RAM, the touch interface is sleekly responsive, and the 1.63-inch, 320x320-pixel super AMOLED screen enormously bright and clear. White text and simple icons pop from the background colour of your choice, each function sitting in its own clear, friendly square that you can swipe between to find the one you want.
The Galaxy Gear has a metal face and -- hang on a minute: simple icons on clear, friendly squares? That sounds familiar...
Yes, before we go any further, we should address the fact that the interface of the Android-powered Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch is basically Windows Phone.
Similarity to Windows Phone
Windows Phone is Microsoft's operating system for mobile phones, and consists of white text and simple icons that pop from friendly, clear squares in the background colour of your choice. See the resemblance?
Where a Windows phone has a grid of these live tiles on its screen, the Galaxy Gear shows you one tile at a time to keep things as clear as possible on the small screen of a watch. It's certainly an effective way of making the most of a reduced screen, but there's no denying the similarities with Windows Phone.
The Gear can even change the colour of the screen to match the colour of the actual watch, an idea that will be very familiar to anyone with a Windows Phone-powered, brightly coloured Nokia Lumia phone.
Windows Phone aside, back to the watch: the Galaxy Gear has a metal face and adjustable buckle set on a flexible rubberised and subtly ridged strap. It comes in six colours: black, gray, orange, lime green, and beige all with a silver face and buckle; and a sixth version with a beige strap and champagne-toned gold metal accoutrements.
The rubberised strap certainly feels sturdy, but I can see it getting clammy, especially if you're exercising and using the watch to track your exertions. I'd like to see a version with a metal band, which would feel more grown-up. Samsung hinted to me that's in the plans for the future.
To charge the Gear there's a row of copper charging dots on the inside. You have to clip it into an odd-shaped dock, which is shaped a bit like a tiny photo frame that hinges open for the watch to sit inside and become a sort of stand. The dock has a standard Micro-USB socket -- but the watch itself doesn't. That means carrying the dock around or risking the battery dying and leaving you with no way to charge the thing.
On the side of the strap is a small 1.9-megapixel camera, bulging slightly from the strap. Samsung calls it a memographer, emphasising the capture of moments with low-resolution snaps and bite-size videos rather than glorious crystal-clear pictures. The camera options are pretty basic: choose from auto or macro focus, and a couple of different sizes. Photos can be 1,392x1,392 or 1,280x960 pixels. Videos last 10 seconds, with sound, and can be 720p, 640x640, 640x480, or 480x480 pixels.
To take a picture, swipe up from the home screen and tap on the screen. I found that the camera took a moment to fire after I'd tapped the screen, so it could struggle with fast-moving action.
If you wear your watch on the outside of your wrist, the camera sits at the bottom of your hand, nearest your little finger. When you raise your arm as if eating an ice cream, saluting, or doing an Adam Ant impression, then the camera points outward.
One potential problem with the placement of the camera is that it sits under your wrist when your hands are upright, so could scratch against surfaces. And if, like me, you wear your watch on the inside of your wrist, I guess we're stuck with self-portraits.
You control the watch by swiping left and right through a selection of screens. You can change the order they appear, but out of the box when you start scrolling to the right you go from the home screen to notifications, then voice memos, then S Voice commands, then your photo gallery, the music player, a pedometer, settings, and an apps shortcut. Scroll to the left and you see your contacts followed by a phone call log. The screens scroll continually, so when you get all the way to the end you come back round to the home screen and continue on out the other side.
The home screen can be customised with a variety of watch faces, or to display extra information. It can show your next calendar appointment, or the temperature and a little icon saying whether it's sunny or cloudy, which you can tap to see a forecast for the next few days.
For some reason the default home screen also shows the time the watch was last updated, if that's something you feel you need to know at a moment's notice.
You can choose the home screen display you want either in the settings menu, or in the companion app on your phone.
Notifications show you what new messages and alerts you have. Tap on them and your phone will show you the message. You can record voice memos up to 5 minutes long, or command the watch by scrolling to the S Voice app, tapping it, and voicing your desires; you might intone "Check the weather," for example.
Tap on the photo gallery and you get thumbnails of your photos and videos -- distinguished by a little play arrow -- in two rows. It may have been because I was using an early sample of the Gear, but I found the scrolling a little eager -- I'd scroll one way, miss the shot I wanted, scroll back, and miss it going the other way. In that sense, the touch screen is almost too responsive.
Tap the music player and you get a basic set of controls -- play, pause, skipping backward and forward -- which control the music playing on your phone. No more getting your phone out of your pocket to skip a track, find out what a particular song is, or tie yourself in knots trying to pause proceedings when someone unexpectedly engages you in conversation.
Swipe up from the home screen and you launch the camera. Swipe down from the home screen and you get your dialer keypad, where you can enter a phone number and make a call.
At any point, swiping in from the top of the screen takes you back a step. And to return to the home screen, there's a single physical home button on the side of the watch to the top right of the screen.
Tap on the Apps screen and you're taken to a submenu of apps installed on the Gear. Samsung says at launch there'll be around 70 apps optimised for the Gear's small screen, most of which are basic apps like a calendar. There are some big names though, including Evernote and Pinterest, which can record and share your quick snaps; eBay and Path to keep an eye on your auctions and social networks; and RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal to follow your latest physical jerks.
Talking to your phone
The Galaxy Gear uses low-power Bluetooth to communicate with your smartphone -- and by "your smartphone," we mean "only the Galaxy Note 3," at least for now. When you pair the Galaxy Gear smartwatch with the Note 3, the watch talks to the phone to let you control music or view notifications without taking the phone out of your pocket. And it works the other way, too: the Gear Manager companion app installed on your phone lets you adjust the settings of your watch. Other options include the Find My Device feature: lose track of your phone, and you can use your watch to signal the errant blower, which will make a racket until you locate it. And vice versa: lose your watch, and use the companion app on your phone to set the watch ringing so you can return it to its rightful place on your wrist.
If you ever feel you're a slave to your phone, the Gear will cut down on the palaver of pulling out your mobile every 5 minutes. Whether buying another gadget is the answer to reducing your dependence on an earlier gadget is a philosophical question for another time, but the Galaxy Gear has the potential to cut down on the amount your mobile shouts for your attention.
Sure, you don't need it need it, but it's also a lot of fun. And the Gear makes sense in the context of, unveiled at the same time at IFA. When phones are as big as they are today and capable of doing just about anything, how do you cut through to the basics? Why not with a fun, friendly smartwatch.
Just nobody tell Microsoft.